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The Disability Disconnect: Websites

Most people are familiar with things that make physical spaces accessible—ramps, elevators, wider doorways. However, there is a space that often gets overlooked—websites. Digital accessibility plays an important part in a world of inclusion. Access to information is commonplace in our daily lives: checking a store’s hours, looking up directions, doing research. Being cut off from most of that information puts people with disabilities at a huge disadvantage. To work towards equal access and inclusion we need to make sure our websites are accessible.

Disconnected train tracks

What is an “accessible” website

Simply put, an accessible website is a site that has been built in a way that allows everyone use it easily.

There are a number of potential barriers that people with disabilities face when trying to use websites. For instance, some people with limited use of their hands may not be able use a mouse. In this case, a website that contains code to let that person use the “Tab” key to navigate through the information would give them easy (and equal) access. Another example is an individual who is blind or has low vision. When a website displays visual information (like a chart or graphic), it needs to contain code that allows assistive technologies to get the information and convey its meaning to the user—giving them equal access to the content.

Why the disconnect

There are a number of reasons that led to this situation:

Lack of awareness. There is an amount of public consciousness when it comes to physical spaces and accessibility. Buildings have ramps, elevators, and accessible bathrooms. Public transportation vehicles are wheelchair accessible.

When it comes to websites and digital information, there simply isn’t the same level of awareness. Many people don’t realize that websites can present challenges to certain users. In the same way modifications enable people with disabilities to move easily within a building, there are ways to build a website that makes it easy for people to use.

Lack of web accessibility knowledge. Many organizations hire outside firms to build their websites. Most of those outside firms are generalist firms that aren’t familiar with accessibility. They are unaware of the guidelines, methods and best practices. It takes knowledge, planning and a process to create an accessible website. If accessibility wasn’t part of the criteria when hiring the firm, it didn’t happen.

Lack of resources. Resources are always a challenge, both in time and money. If nobody on staff is trained in building accessible websites, there is a need to hire someone outside the organization. Trying to retrofit a large existing website can be costly. However, there are a number of small changes that are usually quick and low-cost. If you build accessibility in from the start at the planning stage, the cost is minimal.

Why providers need an accessible website

We believe that to encourage a world of inclusion, information needs to be presented in ways that allow people of all abilities to access it.

Currently, service providers are not required by the federal government to have accessible websites. Nor are most businesses, though several recent lawsuits suggest this could change. Disability service providers have a fantastic opportunity to lead by example, and voluntarily make their websites pass accessibility standards, before pressure is put on all organizations and businesses to do so.

Digital accessibility plays an important part in a world of inclusion. Access to information is commonplace in our daily lives. To be cut off from most of that information puts people with disabilities at a huge disadvantage. You may think that someone with a disability would never visit your website and that might be true. On the other hand, a person with low vision may be researching new day programs for a family member and lack of accessibility would mean that person may go elsewhere.

Disability aside, people use different devices, operating systems, browsers, even different versions of browsers, so content needs to work across all of these variables. Visitors should be able to choose the technology that works best for them and be able to find, navigate and interact with your web content both comfortably and easily.

What you can do now

We took a random sample of 10 different service provider sites to test for website accessibility. The results showed that eight of them failed an automated accessibility test and, while some of them had small issues that would be very easily fixed, others had major issues that would require a larger update to their site.

Assess your current site. The first step is to figure out where your website stands regarding accessibility. There are two parts to an accessibility evaluation: an automated tool and a human evaluator. The automated tool goes quickly through a site and points out items that don’t meet accessibility guidelines. There are a number of online tools that can give you an idea of the level of your site’s accessibility and they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. One of our favorites is WAVE.

All automated tools have limitations so a human evaluator is needed to review the tool’s assessment and look for things that it can’t single out. For example, when using images on a website, they need to have what’s called an “alt attribute.” The description within this attribute gives information to the user if they are unable to view that image. As long as an image has an “alt attribute,” the automated tool will pass it for accessibility. However, let’s say the description supplied is written as “image1”—this fails the human test of being accessible. What is someone supposed to know from the word “image1”? Is this image necessary to understanding the content, or is it purely a decorative image which holds no important information? These kinds of issues can be identified and assessed only by a person who understands how to build for accessibility.

Set your accessibility goals

When you first decide to make your website accessible, you may think “we’ll make it completely accessible and meet all the criteria of the strictest level of compliance.” This is commendable but completely overwhelming. The federal government set accessibility standards in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. There is also an international set of standards called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that outlines three different levels of accessibility. By using one or both of these as a guide, you can choose the appropriate level of criteria for your organization and set a realistic goal.

Prioritize the fixes. If you are starting with an existing website, some of the fixes to web accessibility may be small and can be addressed quickly without much time or cost. There may be a couple of big barriers you can fix now, and then you can set a schedule for the rest of the updates. Keep in mind that if your website is more than five years old, it may be more cost-effective and efficient to build a new site. If a new website is on the horizon, it’s always easier and cheaper to build accessibility in from the start rather than retrofit.

Plan for continued success. Think about the different types of content you add to your site regularly. Create some rules for people that produce content to follow, so that any new pages will meet your accessibility goals. Schedule quarterly or yearly accessibility check-ups, to match the frequency with which your organization adds content to the site. Having an accessible communications plan in place will ensure that everything created going forward will be fully accessible. Otherwise, in a short time, you’ll find yourself right back where you started.

Making the connection

Building for accessibility is not meant to be a burden for organizations, it’s meant to make participation better for all. People with disabilities (and without) will experience your website in many different ways. For some it will be accessed visually, others by sound, some will use touch and for some it could be a combination of any, or even all, of these. It is not for us to decide who has a right to access our website and who doesn’t. To promote and work toward a world of inclusion, our job is to make sure our websites present the information in ways that allow people of all abilities to access them.

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